Osage Orange: The Wonder Wood of the American Plains
Drive along a backcountry road in the fall in the most states, and you will likely see Osage oranges littering the road. The large, green, knobby balls look nothing like the typical oranges we are used to seeing, and indeed, they are not related to the citrus fruit at all. In fact, you wouldn’t want to eat the Osage oranges. Even though the Osage oranges are not edible, the knobby fruit and wood from the tree itself served several important functions to Native Americans and pioneer settlers to the Great Plains. So helpful was the tree that it was spread by settlers who planted the tree across the country, expanding its range from Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas to almost all parts of the country. Osage orange was truly the wonder wood of the American Plains. Here’s why.
Dense and Hard
The wood of the Osage orange tree is one of the hardest, strongest and densest of all the hardwoods. It has a higher BTU than white oak, hickory, and dogwood, so it burned hotter and longer…ideal for pioneers during the brutal Plains winters.
Osage orange trees grow fast, thick, and dense and the branches are covered in long, hard thorns. All of this made them ideal for use as hedge fences to keep cattle in their pastures. Prior to the invention of barbed wire in 1874, hedgerows created from planting rows of Osage orange was the most effective way of containing livestock. Thousands upon thousands of miles of Osage orange hedges were planted across the Great Plains, as well as in the Midwest, eastern and southern states. The trees can grow up to six feet per year so, in a relatively short time, ranchers and settlers had a living fence surrounding their pastures and grazing lands. Today, rows of Osage orange trees are still commonplace around grazing fields.
Osage oranges also played an important role in creating non-living fences. The wood of the Osage orange tree withstands rot and decay, making them ideal for fence posts. After the widespread introduction of barbed wire fencing, Osage orange remained the go-to tree for fencing use, but this time it was for the rot-resistant wood that could be fashioned into fence posts to hold the newly-invented barbed wire.
In the mid-section of the United States, the wind comes whipping across the plains! One part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal public works initiatives of 1933-1936 was the Shelter Break Project. This was a response to the Dust Bowl and the severe soil erosion in the Great Plains states. Roosevelt sought to reduce the erosion factor and establish wind breaks throughout the Plains states by planting Osage orange trees. The trees were selected for their hardiness and because they grew quickly. In the next decade, unemployed workers were hired by the Shelter Break Project to plant more than 200 million trees. Many of these wind breaks are still growing today.
The wood of the Osage orange tree is strong, hard and resistant to decay so it was the perfect material for railroad ties. In fact, railroad ties made from Osage orange wood would last twenty years or more, while ties made from other wood needed to be replaced after just a few years. The Osage orange, therefore, played a vital role in the expansion and mobility that resulted from the establishment of the transcontinental railroad system.
Osage orange wood was the material of choice for wooden wagon wheels. Its hardness means it is durable and crack-resistant…just what was needed for wheels pulling wagons and carts for settlers in the prairie states.
Native American tribes in the Plains quickly discovered that the strong, yet flexible wood of the Osage orange tree made superior-quality bows. According to legend, a bow made from Osage orange was worth as much as a horse and blanket for Native American traders. The Osage Indians of Missouri and Arkansas had a reputation for being exceptional archers. French explorers and settlers called the Osage orange tree “bois d’arc”, French for bow wood.
Pioneers placed the fruit of the Osage orange tree in their cellars, pantries, and basements to keep insects away. Although it is now dismissed as a folk remedy, early settlers were convinced that the knobby green fruit was the best way to prevent cockroaches, crickets, ants and spiders from setting up residence in their homes. Recent studies by researchers at Iowa State University have detected a chemical compound in the Osage orange fruit that does seem to repel cockroaches.
The Osage orange tree was one of the most important trees to early prairie pioneers and Native Americans alike. The durable, functional wood played an invaluable role in the Westward Expansion and the settlement of the American Great Plains.
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